Colorado may be better known as the Napa Valley of Beer, but it’s our wine that has the nation abuzz right now. Before you raise an eyebrow recalling that local over-oaked Malbec or too-sweet Riesling you tried way back when, consider this: Last year, Vogueand Wine Enthusiast both declared the Grand Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA), our state’s largest wine-growing area, a not-to-be-missed emerging region to visit. Food & Wine included RiNo’s the Infinite Monkey Theorem in its roundup of the country’s best urban wineries. And Centennial State bottles are scoring high marks (in the 90s) in major wine publications.
Why the sudden attention? After all, Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) have been grown in Colorado since the late 1800s, and by 1909, more than 1,000 farms across the state were cultivating them—then along came Prohibition. Colorado went dry in 1916, and vineyards were literally uprooted to make room for peaches and other stone fruits.
Locally made wine didn’t mount a comeback until 1968, when Denver’s Ivancie Cellars opened; it would take winemakers another few decades to figure out which grapes grow best here and rebuild the industry. But, finally, even international luminaries such as Doug Frost—one of four people in the world certified as both a master sommelier and a Master of Wine—are taking notice. “I’m definitely a Colorado wine enthusiast,” Frost says. “The past 20 years have seen great leaps in quality and better choices in grapes and styles. The growth has been smart and measured.”
Drivers of that evolution include an influx of prominent vintners from established wine-growing regions such as California; exploration of different grapes; and experimentation by a new generation of winemakers. Which means it’s time to start seeking out Colorado wine in the same way we celebrate locally grown and produced food, beer, and spirits. Luckily for Denverites, there’s no need to schlep through the snow to the Western Slope to get a taste right now; simply follow our guide to understanding, finding, choosing, and drinking Colorado vino from the comfort of the Front Range.
Making Colorado Terroir
How the Grand Valley AVA’s unique combination of elevation, soil, climate, and water helps create incomparable wines.
Given our other elevation-related superlatives, it’s no surprise Colorado is home to the two highest wine regions in North America, as well as a dry, hot, high-desert climate with a relatively short growing season. What might be unexpected is that it all adds up to great grapes—specifically in the state’s de facto winemaking capital, the Grand Valley AVA, home to 80 percent of the wine grapes cultivated statewide. Colorado Wine Industry Development Board executive director Doug Caskey breaks down the benefits and challenges of growing vines in the region.
- Vineyards in this region range from 4,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level (they go as high as 7,000 feet in the West Elks AVA), meaning farmers have a relatively short growing season of just 180 days. These conditions don’t readily support late-ripening varieties such as Sangiovese and Zinfandel, but they’re great for quicker-to-ripen grapes such as Syrah, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc.
- The light-hued, south-facing Book Cliffs act as a “heat sink,” Caskey says, absorbing and radiating the sun’s warmth onto the valley floor below. Area growers rarely worry about their grapes ripening enough for harvest, instead fearing they may do so too quickly.
- The Colorado River runs through the Grand Valley AVA. Without this water source, the high-desert climate—just eight inches of precipitation annually, on average—could never support grape growing. (Vitis vinifera prefers 20 inches.) Grand Valley is home to “plentiful and old” water rights, Caskey says. “Even when other areas experience drought, the Grand Valley AVA is one of the last to be affected.”
- Because the salts and minerals the Colorado River carries leave Grand Valley’s alluvial soil quite alkaline (the average pH ranges from 7.2 to 8.5, when the ideal pH for grape vines in this AVA is around 6), many grape growers lower the pH of their soil by adding acidifying agents to their irrigation water.
- The airflow through the canyon and along the river creates a wind pattern, dubbed the Million Dollar Breeze, that blows through the area. When temperatures are cool, the gusts warm the vines, protecting them from frost and aiding ripening. On hot days, the draft cools the vines, preserving the grapes’ acidity.
- Plentiful sunshine makes for hot days with low humidity during the summer months, which helps reduce threats to the vines from pests and disease.
$300 Milliom: Annual economic impact of Colorado’s wine industry
150+: Winery licenses in Colorado
344: Wines submitted for this past year’s annual Colorado Wine Governor’s Cup Competition, where judges chose 13 of our best vinos for inclusion in the 2018 Governor’s Cup Collection
Grape Variety Production in 2017:
- 14.15% Cabernet Sauvignon
- 12.81% Merlot
- 9.35% Riesling
- 9.18% Cabernet Franc
- 5.61% Syrah
- 5.54% Chardonnay
- 3.45% Viognier
- 3.26% Gewürztraminer
- 1.94% Pinot Noir
- 1.48% Pinot Gris
- 33.2% Other
Vine to Glass: The Process
Wine is the result of few ingredients: grapes, yeast, sometimes sulfur dioxide, and time. But what exactly ends up in your cup depends on the infinite combinations of decisions, big and small, made by producers. Bo Felton, head winemaker at Colterris Winery, the largest and most technologically advanced producer in the Grand Valley AVA, walks us through the science—and the art—of crafting Colterris’ juice.
Over the winter, Felton and his team carefully prune Colterris’ 75 acres of Vitis vinifera; the vines produce buds in April, and grape clusters flower in June. Felton irrigates and manages pests throughout the year; tasting and lab-testing the grapes and monitoring growth and “veraison” (changes in color and firmness) continues until the acid-sugar balance in each variety is ideal for harvest.
Felton sends his crew to handpick the grapes into five-gallon buckets, which, when full, are dumped into half-ton bins; five to eight tons of grapes are gathered in a given day.
For white wines and rosés, grapes are mechanically pressed as soon as they reach the winery (the days of crushing via foot stomping are long gone) to extract the juice and limit contact with the grapes’ skins, which give a wine its color and much of its tannins. The juice is filtered and then pumped into a fermentation tank. For red wines, the grapes are de-stemmed—not pressed—and then the whole fruit goes into tanks for fermentation. At that point, the fruit, with its skins and seeds, is called “must.”
Felton adds yeast to jump-start the process, during which the yeast eats the sugars in the must, converting them into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. As the red wines ferment, carbon dioxide is released, causing the skins to rise to the surface of the must, where they form a solid layer, or “cap.” Felton uses a hose to circulate the juice and break up the cap in each tank at least twice a day. After two weeks to a month, when enough sugars have been converted into alcohol, reds (after being pressed), whites, and rosés are pumped into stainless steel aging tanks or wooden (typically French or American oak) barrels.
During the first year of aging, Felton monitors acid levels, adds sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation, and transfers the wine from its aging vessel to another container and back (called a “rack and return”) every three months to remove sediment and aerate the wine. Continual monitoring and, eventually, meticulous tasting and blending take place over the next six months (for Chardonnay) to a year or more (for Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and the like).
The final blends are combined, “fined” (clarified), filtered, bottled, and closed with screw caps—or, at other wineries, corks. Colterris’ bottles are screen-printed with their labels; other producers affix paper labels and sometimes seal with wax.
Sip in the City
Though their inventories may rotate, these Front Range restaurants and bars are steadfast in their commitments to showcasing local wineries. By Ruth Tobias
1. Black Cat Farm Table Bistro in Boulder
Go here because: Chef-farmer Eric Skokan’s devotion to homegrown ingredients extends to his collection of some 20 Colorado-made wines.
Ask for: The exclusive 2016 Black Cat Meritage house blend produced by BookCliff Vineyards ($13 per glass; $70 per bottle)
2. Berkeley Untapped in Berkeley
Go here because: This tiny neighborhood watering hole makes room for two custom Jack Rabbit Hill Farm blends on tap as well as two local bottles, such as Plum Creek Cellar’s Riesling and Colterris Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ask for: Jack Rabbit Hill Farm’s white Ghost Cheeks or red Fusee Rouge ($8 per glass)
3. Creekside Cellars in Evergreen
Go here because: Perched on the banks of Bear Creek, this nearly two-decade-old winery and restaurant offers a bucolic setting and respected Colorado-grown wines, produced on-site by winemaker Michelle Cleveland.
Ask for: Creekside’s 2016 Cabernet Franc ($14 per glass; $45 per bottle), paired with chef Evan Hassinger’s epic antipasti for two to four
4. Salt in Boulder
Go here because: Chef-owner Bradford Heap supports area grape growers nearly as much as he does farmers, carrying at least three local labels.
Ask for: The house wine by BookCliff Vineyards—currently a white blend of Viognier, Muscat Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay ($9 per glass; $36 per bottle)
5. The Way Back in Berkeley
Go here because: Six or so locally produced wines grace this list, with options available by the glass, the can, and the bottle; look for Cabernet Franc, which is emerging as a key grape in Colorado.
Ask for: Colterris Winery’s canned red, white, and rosé blends ($10 for 250 milliliters), which Way Back partner Chad Michael George calls “a delicious, affordable way to give Colorado wine a shot”
6. Angelo’s Taverna and Carboy Winery in Littleton
Go here because: You can pair the restaurant’s signature char-grilled oysters with 20-plus vinos, on tap or in bottles—most made at the adjoining two-year-old (sub)urban winery.
Ask for: Carboy’s Cabernet Franc ($46 per bottle), Viognier ($11 per glass; $42 per bottle), or Albariño ($11 per glass; $42 per bottle), crafted from Grand Valley–grown grapes
Ask the Expert: Do I have to sniff the cork?
“One smells the cork to determine if trichloroanisole (aka TCA) is present, which smells musty or like wet cardboard. But it takes practice to learn what TCA really smells like, and sometimes those aromas are not present in the cork at all. Instead, I smell the opening of the bottle and the wine once it’s poured into the glass.”
—Kendra Anderson, owner of Bar Helix
Concrete Jungle Juice
Without a vineyard, what’s an aspiring Denver winemaker to do? Buy Colorado grapes and open an urban winery, of course. These are three of our favorites.
Founder Ben Parsons is considered the godfather of Denver’s urban winery scene, having built his reputation as a skilled local maker over eight years at places like Canyon Wind Cellars and Sutcliffe Vineyards before opening the original Infinite Monkey Theorem location in the Arts District on Santa Fe in 2008. Now at home in a 15,000-square-foot RiNo winery frequented by food trucks (there’s also an outpost in Austin, Texas, and a couple more taprooms across the Front Range), Parsons has been a driving force for innovation—and a lack of pretension—by helping to spearhead the modern kegging and canning of Colorado vino.
Scene: Industrial-chic, laid-back, hip
Grapes: Western Slope for bottled wines; Washington state fruit for canned wines
Tours: Public and private tours with tastings run from $25 to $75 per person; you need to book ahead
Must-Order: In the RiNo taproom, the 2018 Chardonnay made with Grand Valley AVA grapes
Chad and Marla Yetka are new to the winery business, but with Bordeaux-trained, Napa Valley–based winemaker Brian Graham leading the way, the couple has created a gorgeous, chandelier- and wooden-beam-adorned urban winery in RiNo. In the renovated 1800s mining tool plant, patrons sip on Colorado-made wines (as well as many out of California or Oregon) and nosh on the likes of spinach artichoke dip or boar sausage flatbread. If you’re feeling creative, you can even sign up to become a winemaker for a day thanks to Chad’s custom blending sessions. You’ll go home with a custom-labeled bottle—and all of the bragging rights that come along with it.
Scene: Cabin-glam, stylish, refined
Grapes: 20 percent Western Slope fruit, produced in Denver; 80 percent California and Oregon fruit and finished wines
Tours: Private tours and winemaking classes (from $20 to $99 per person) available with advanced booking
Must-Order: The aromatic, bone-dry 2017 Palisade Riesling
The Balistreri family—winemaker John; his wife, Birdie; his daughter Julie; and one grandson, Ray—runs this 20-year-old winery, situated in industrial North Denver. So, when you walk into the bright, open tasting room, you’ll likely be greeted by one of the Balistreris themselves. Regulars nibble on charcuterie boards and risotto as they sip the family’s mostly Colorado-grown wines; Birdie may be on hand to take you on an impromptu tour of the production facility, even letting you smell bins of fermenting grapes if your visit is during the fall months. Balistreri’s fruit-forward wines are produced just as John’s Sicilian ancestors did it, using naturally occurring yeasts, no sulfur dioxide, and no fining or filtering.
Scene: Homey, old-school, welcoming
Grapes: 98 percent Colorado-grown, two percent from California
Tours: Winery tours (and tastings!) are free for groups of eight or fewer; $12 per person otherwise
Must-Order: The vibrant, spicy 2016 Colorado Cabernet Franc
Ask the Expert: What’s more important: telling a sommelier your price range or what you like to drink?
“Both. Share the types and styles of wine that you like and be honest about the price you’re comfortable spending. Never feel shy talking about price at the table—it’s not a faux pas.”
—Carlton McCoy, wine director at the Little Nell in Aspen
Bring It Home
Three wine shops with robust local lineups pinpoint the Colorado bottles to buy now—and what to make for dinner to go with them. —RT
Divino Wine & Spirits
Why: Owner Dave Moore doesn’t sell anything he won’t vouch for—so rest assured the eight to 15 local labels he stocks at any given time, like Maison La Belle Vie Winery’s walnut-infused Vin de Noix, are worth your while.
Buy: Moore calls Creekside Cellars’ 2012 Robusto ($57), a Bordeaux blend, “the cream of the crop.”
Pair With: Colorado lamb
Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits at Stanley Marketplace
Why: Mr. B’s Stanley Marketplace outpost (the original is in Ballpark) boasts five to 10 offerings—particularly reds—from Sutcliffe Vineyards, Plum Creek Cellars, and Jack Rabbit Hill Farm.
Buy: Sutcliffe’s vibrant Cinsaut ($25) offers yet more proof of Rhône varieties’ success with Colorado’s terroir.
Pair With: Herb-roasted duck or pork chops
Total Wine & More
Why: This new superstore offers more than 200 local selections, from bottles by Rhône Valley–inspired Allis Ranch Winery to those from Colorado Cellars Winery, the state’s oldest existing producer.
Buy: Carlson Vineyards’ fresh, semi-sweet plum wine ($11), included in the 2018 Governor’s Cup Collection
Pair With: Asian noodles with moderate chile heat, such as pad thai
Ask the Expert: If a wine isn’t sold by the glass, is it OK to ask for a taste before committing to a bottle?
“Not really. You can’t go to the grocery store, buy an apple, take a bite, and then return it.”
—Matt Mulligan, wine director and general manager at Hop Alley